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Good news. A plan to quarry more gravel from around the Thornborough Henges in Yorkshire has been knocked back in the courts.

The Thornborough Henges- three huge, aligned turf enclosures- constitute one of the finest and largest prehistoric ritual sites in Britain. They ought to be as well known as Stonehenge or Avebury.

Here's a poem I wrote about them a few years back.

THORNBOROUGH HENGES

Our towns might look like this- would look like this-
If we let them go. The southernmost henge is a lake
Of grasses. Follow the newly-planted hedge
And you come to the second in line which has thistles as well.
I sat in the West and the clouds hurried out of the East
And I watched the waves of sunshine roll to my feet.
Then by car to the third. It's a circular wood
And we followed the path round the bank- or I think we did
But the boskage has thickened the view. At a crook in the path
We came upon Helen who'd travelled the other way round,
All cheery because she'd discovered a raspberry bush.
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ALDERLEY EDGE

The lips of the cave are chapped with carving-
Names, mostly illegible.
Copper-water sweats from the rock-
Viridian.

They were mining here
In the bronze age. In the modern era
Fortunes got made.

I double up
And crab-walk into the rippling passage
Till daylight snuffs. It's dark as the womb here,
Dark as the grave, but I want to push deeper.

Bob the Wizard told cracking tales
About the Edge. In the 1940s
Night-time ramblers heard ghostly music
Wavering up from underground.
It wasn't boggarts but local witches
(Bob was one) with a gramophone
In a disused working. They'd scull initiates
Over an underground lake and leave 'em
Stuck on a beach.

In the dark, of course-
The dripping, echoing, absolute dark-
Where if they left you for long enough
Odd things might come and look at you,
Lit up from inside like deep-sea fishes.

Bob has died and if he walks
He'll be walking here, another spook
For the caves to comfort.

I'm here to scout
For a T.V. show that ain't gonna happen.
We talk of helicopter shots,
Of running a steadicam through the woods
Out onto the ledge where one looks at Cheshire,
Of taking lights down into the caverns
To hunt our Snark.

People have worked here,
Played here, done peculiar things here
Thousand of years. The cave's chapped lips
Are forming an "O".

(I don't know why it is, but whenever I try to post verse in rich text it ends up double-spaced- which looks really attentuated and silly- so I'm taking this poem out of the last post and giving it an entry to itself.)
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GODDESS RIVER

A man wrapped in a woollen cloak,
Ringing a bell- I conjured him up
One afternoon on L.S.D.
Out of the chiming of a brook
And memories of The Black Arrow.
Probably the man's a leper,
Certainly he's wise and old-
The hermit of the Tarot pack
Or Bosch's quiet St Antony-
A lover of the wilderness.
Now, when I walk by any stream
He's with me. He knows Medlock well-
Dear Goddess river- from her birth
In swampy fields at Bishops' Park
Down to her losing of herself
In Manchester below the bluff
The Romans called Mamucium-
Mammary Hill. I've heard his bell
In rocky cloughs and beech tree rides
And by the banks of stinking garlic
Where the arch of an aqueduct-
Raw enough to be Roman work-
Spans the river bed. A skein
Of water from an overflow
Mizzles down from above the keystone
Fifty foot and hits the stream
As though a giantess were pissing.
That's a place I like to linger,
Sitting on a smooth grey rock,
Watching clumps of foam revolve,
Hearing the bell. No rattle's like
That bell for scaring demons off.

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You may have heard how they've found a "new" poem by Sappho. This one turned up in the papier-mache casing of an Egyptian mummy. It's only the fourth near-complete text we have from the woman whom the ancients considered to be the greatest of all lyric poets.

I don't read Greek, but I've seen a literal English translation. Here's my (very free) version of it....

After Sappho

Enjoy it girls, enjoy the music,
Sweet as night scented stocks,

And don’t mind me. I’m old and out of sorts.
Don’t ask me to dance.

There was a time, before these knees packed up,
I leaped around like a deer.

But such is life. It could be so much worse.
You’ve heard them speak of Tithonus-

How Goddess Aurora loved him,
Carried him off to live in the sunrise,

And gave him immortality.
Soon he grew frail and ill- and couldn’t die.

Interlude

Jun. 19th, 2005 10:40 am
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CATALONIA

This is the first time I've walked with a stick since I was 17. the stick is bamboo, very light, with a plastic handle that looks like horn.

I am up on the evening hill among broken stones and black umbrella pines. The girl band down in the Placa d'Espanya is so loudly amplified that even we wanderers in rarified air can sing along .

What is that noise the sea makes- is it a sigh, a groan, a whisper? It is all these and more. It is the voice of our lovers past and to come. As a noble Roman once remarked, "all human knowledge comes from the sea."

Ma and pa seagull go winging past, level with me but still high up. Do birds ever die in mid-flight? Has anyone seen it happen? The aloes sprawl on the blue-grey cliffs like angels. If I were to drop off the edge I would look like that.

Behind my eyes is a circle. In one half are the girls in the band, in the other the waves of the sea. They address one another like centaurs and lapiths. There is no clear line between them, just a zone of pulse and shiver.

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Belle de Jour is a cool film. Cool in both senses. Very smart, very detached.

I saw it when it first came out. I was in my late teens and it was way too adult for me. I had romantic notions about love and just didn't get the complexity and perversity of the heroine's sexuality.

I have grown into Bunuel's vision of the world. Civilisation is so much frosting.

Catherine Deneuve is the ultimate Hitchcock blonde. Unfortunately she came on the scene too late for Hitch to employ her. I love her stillness.

I wrote a sequence of poems on Spanish subjects a few years back. Here's the one about Bunuel.

Read more... )

Funerals

May. 16th, 2005 10:15 am
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The humanist guy who'll be taking Bran's funeral took the funeral of my sister-in-law's neighbour last week. My bro-in-law didn't think he was solemn enough, but the widow thought he got it right.

What does one want from a funeral?

A reminder that we've all got it coming to us?

A dose of religious uplift?

A celebration of the life of the deceased?

Some combination of the above?

No, this isn't a quiz, but I'd be glad of your thoughts.

When I was a clergyman I prided myself on doing a good funeral. People usually congratulated me afterwards (but they would, wouldn't they?) Here's a (15 year old) poem I wrote looking back on those times..

TWO SERMONS

With time on my hands between two funerals,
Leaving the crematorium chapel,
I made a tour of the old graves.
Their ragged turf was covered with snow.

Blackened stones, the height of a woman,
They had the appearance of cowled figures.
It was a meeting of black robes
As I in my cassock moved down the rows,

Reading the names, the dates, the praise
That could have been uttered of anyone.
These made money in cotton, I thought,
And these kept shop. But try as I might

I couldn't conjure their living presence
For all my thoughts had a coal-face glitter.
I saw them stiff in their gothic houses
With puppet faces and black clothes

And the voices I gave them in my mind
Protested, "You will learn nothing here,
Patronising this underclass.
You deaden us with received ideas.

We were fickle in love, like you,
And insecure in our certainties;
How can you hope to account for us
Until you have thoroughly understood

How you are nothing? Don't bother to ask
The dead for truth. We are even less
Than any makeshift living thing.
As well interrogate drifting smoke

Or melting snow. And as for God..."
Their voices now were the rasp of the wind
On frozen snow; then they were cowls
Lined up as on a river bank

And lastly blackened stone. I turned.
This was before I ditched my love
In love's name, as Augustine did,
Saving myself; I wasn't ready

To hear their sermon. The hearse was coming.
Black tinder fell from the sky.
I wouldn't have noticed it but for the snow.
I had my own brief sermon to say.
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There's a park about half a mile outside Manchester City Centre, sandwiched between the railway lines and a nondescript area of old Victorian buildings and run-down business premises. It was a grim, melancholy place, dark green and weedy and just the place to go gathering mandrakes- that is if you knew what a mandrake looked like. Part of it had been used one time as a football pitch and the surface was clinker with weeds and self-sown laburnums pushing through. Elsewhere there were 18th century gravestones lying flat to the ground. No-one much visited it. I knew nothing of its history and I was very fond of it.

I figured it was mine all mine and I put it in this poem.

CITY PARK

In a city park with leggy shrubs
I read the epitaphs of children.
18th century, pre-all this,
From a time when the park was an out of town graveyard.
Six years, four years, nine months old-
And the parents, baffled by hierarchy,
Express their gratitude to God.
Although there are benches along the path
With a spacious view across the vale
To warehouses and her Majesty’s prison
(Noble Victorian structures all)
It seems that none of the office workers
Want to come down here to eat their lunch.











I'm talking about it in the past tense because it is no more. Or rather they've had the developers in and spent a couple of million quid on renovating it for the pleasure of the young professionals and business types who are moving into the new apartment buildings that are being built alongside. So now there are shrubs and water features and smooth green lawns. And because of the publicity I now know something of its history. It has a name- Angel Meadow- and it used to be at the heart of Manchester's most notorious slum- a place so nasty and murderous and depraved that well-informed observers reckoned it was worse than London's Whitechapel- where Jack the Ripper went about his business. Teachers at the Ragged School (which is still standing) used to need a police escort to get them to and from work.

And Dickens was there briefly, gathering material for Hard Times.

The park itself is a burying ground. And how! There may be 17th century plague pits there. What's certain is that it's where they shovelled in the victims of the 19th century cholera epidemics. Ah, no wonder it feels the way it does.

Correction: felt. I haven't been back since it reopened. I must go. And take my camera with me. I want to find out if they've managed to exorcise it with their bulldozers.

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The Pilgrim's Way runs along the flank of the North Downs to wind up in Canterbury. It's the route Chaucer's pilgrims took and several of the places it passes through are name-checked in his poem. Last weekend we drove along a section of it. The road was metalled but only wide enough for a single vehicle. It went up and down and roundabout, following the contours of the hillside. On one side of us were woods, sloping upwards; on the other a view out over the farmland of the Weald of Kent.

Weald is a Saxon word, related to the German Wald, meaning forest. But the Weald hasn't been wooded for a long, long time.

Kent gleams like no other English county. It's made of chalk and everywhere the white shows through.

Although used by medieval pilgrims, the Way goes back to prehistoric times. There are several neolithic monuments alongside it, the most spectacular of them being Kit's Coty- a freestanding doorway of huge stones- which was once part of a barrow.

There's a tradition that Kit was originally Catigern, a British chieftain of the time of the Roman invasion, who is supposedly buried hereabouts. Well, maybe- but Kit's Coty was already a few thousand years old by Catigern's day.

Here's a poem I wrote between ten and fifteen years ago with Kit's Coty in mind.

THE STONES

What a good party the ghosts gave
Up on the hill amongst the stones:
Fiddle music and dancing lights,
And those they lured might have the luck
To be princes among the Sidhe or else
Trudge home at dawn all cock-a-hoop
With basketfuls of their fine gold
Which sunshine turns to crinkled leaves.

As copulation is earth to earth
And tumbles us out into visionary space
So sybils entered the stone doors
To sit in the dark with the tribe's dead,
And the energies of the mothering earth
Threw them out of their personal selves
To run with the pack or fly with the flock
Or meet some Haunter's unbearable gaze.

The mounds are gone now, levelled by rabbits
And Protestant ploughmen. The stones remain:
Freestanding doorways through which we look
At landscapes finer for being framed.
The Sidhe are out in the sun, their treasure
Scattered all over the country. Love
Is a narrow gateway to all of the world,
And the rites of the earth are the rites of the air.

Easter Poem

Feb. 8th, 2005 02:58 pm
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On Being Asked For An Easter Poem

The body once dead is- within four minutes I think- so much unusable carbon and water.
I don't like to think of that body on its ledge degrading.
I wouldn't have turned up three days later like Mary Magdalen.
I'd have been thinking- eugh gross!

So that miracle doesn't fly for me. I cannot feel it here
(thumps chest.)
I cannot think that anyone met Christ in a garden after his death.

I believe in ghosts but that's another matter.

In a churchyard in Kent there was a gravestone with a carving of the Noli Me Tangere.
It was dead clumsy.
Mary had huge hands and Christ, mistaken for the gardener, was leaning on a spade.
Last time I paid it a visit Mary's face had sheared off.
Loose knit stone, Easily carved, easily un-carved. Rub it with your thumb and you get a smear of Ordovician mud on the skin.

Nothing comes back as it once was. Nothing. That's the economy of Terra. There are only so many atoms whizzing around and they are continually being reconfigured. Nothing is lost but everything is remade. And the new thing is not the old thing come back. Does it remember what it once was? Does it hell!

Never before
Never again.

That's the song the midges sing, twirling under the overhang. How long do they last- minutes?

The body drops into dust and the dust is good for something- I don't know what.

It makes the weeds in the garden grow.

Yes, why not!

It makes the weeds in the garden grow.

Hubble

Feb. 8th, 2005 09:34 am
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It seems like the Hubble Space telescope is wheeling closer and will soon be caught by gravity and pulled back to earth.

There's not enough money to fix it.

"Oh," I went and "Ah," but then I read how it's no longer the newest piece of kit and there's a telescope in Hawaii that's twice as powerful.

So let's not be sentimental. We'll just be losing the equipment, not the science.

Even so....

Here's a poem I wrote a few years back, when those amazing photographs started coming in. I think I'd just been given a book of them for my birthday.

HUBBLE DEEP FIELD

A tiny point of unfussed space,
Above the north galactic pole,
No stars or anything visible
To your common or garden telescope,
And, look, look, there's galaxies-
Like specks, flecks, sparks, whorls
In a chunk of granite- white ones, blue ones,
Red ones, discs with rims of gold,
Fifteen hundred, all of them billions
Of light years distant.

I'm not yet used
To these big numbers.

Three thousand years
That's all- will carry us back to Homer
Who, thanks to the trick of script,
Gave us our first good look at ourselves.
Wives and old men on the wall
Watch as the young men fight and die
Far off, light flaring from their bronze.

Imbolc

Feb. 1st, 2005 10:57 pm
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IMBOLC

And if you leave your fire banked up
And your kitchen clean and your table scrubbed
And your plates and cups all neat on your dresser
Then maybe Holy Bridget will come
All unseen on this night of nights
And trail her beggarly rags to your hearth
And stretch her hands to your fire for its blessing
And stretch out her hands and bless your house.

This Night

Dec. 21st, 2004 09:20 pm
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I'm hopeless. I don't keep track of dates. And so I almost missed it- the Solstice, I mean.

I was asked for a poem and I said I would keep the window ajar. And something just flew in.

Voila....

THIS NIGHT

This Night.
This Night that trails the longest cloak-
Aldebaran the jewel at the throat
The Pleiades the jewel at the shoulder-
A red jewel and a clouded jewel-
This Night,

This Night a child is born
In some hole,
in some hutch,
In some place out of sight
Of whatever hunter is out for its blood.
There is always a hunter out for the blood
Of whatever child is born this night.

The Power,
The existing Power
With jewels arranged across its breast,
With a stamp for stamping the documents
That pass in succession across its desk
(It works so hard, poor thing, for our weal)
Is out for the blood (for it knows best)
For the blood of the child that is born this night.

But this Night keeps it secret
This Night keeps it holy:
The birth of the child in the dark among beasts-
Among bats among rats among kine among sheep-
Who will wear the sun as this Night wears stars,
The one red star and the cloud of stars,
Aldebaran and the Pleiades.

Alte Musik

Dec. 4th, 2004 10:40 am
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When I'm feeling really sentimental (as now, because it's Christmas) I reach for the "Early Music".

Alte Musik (it sounds better in German)- troubadour songs, crusader songs, Carmina Burana- but in the original settings, not Carl Orff's (though I like those too.)

Currently top of my medieval hit parade are.

1. Palastinalied- an ineffably sad song about crusading by Walther von der Vogelweide (d. 1230)

2. Quan Vei La Lauzeta Mover- Benart de Ventadorn's 12th century ballad of lost love.

3. The Wedding of Robin Hood- an English ballad which may or may not have inspired As You Like It. It has such a pretty tune.

4. Ja Nuls Homs Pris- the song Richard Coeur de Lion wrote while banged up in an Austrian prison.

Coeur de Lion was a murderous psychopath and arguably England's worst king ever (all he did was tax us and ignore us) but he can be forgiven much for this lovely little song. I wrote a poem about it a few years back and here it is...

JA NULS HOMS PRIS

Richard the Lionheart sings in his prison
And serve him right.

But the song is lovely.
It potters along the roads of Europe,
Under the poplars, under a sky
Of whisk-tailed cirrus. The killer, the rapist,
The butcher of Acre is feeling so sorry.
It stirs the oak and the beech where peasants
Are herding swine. They suppose that the lack
In their lives is a king who is being kept from them.

I love the middle ages. Maybe I was a crusader in a previous life. Maybe I was an outlaw. Maybe I was a monk.

Maybe I was a lady in a turret room in the Auvergne, waiting for some poet, some singer, to drop by and amuse her.
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I spent yesterday in a state of advanced wooziness- and out of the wooze came this. It's a story I told myself while half asleep, then wrote up later. The name, Sophie Vylar, was the first thing that came through.

Vylar? What does that mean?

I googled it afterwards. There are a few Vylars around but none of them is called Sophie. There are Indian Vylars and French Vylars. There's even an LJer called Vylar but- guess-what- their journal is a blank.

Sophie Vylar

The two girls are waiting.
Candles burn in sconces on either side of the mirror.
The thief whistles softly.
The maid throws him the rope and he climbs it hand over hand and in at the window.
His feet are naked.
The maid is his friend or so he thinks. She shows him where the jewels are kept.
Then Sophie Vylar steps out from behind a screen with her pistol levelled.
It is a wheel-lock pistol with a long barrel.
“Take off your clothes,” she says.
The maid holds the pistol while Sophie takes off her own clothes.
Under the high-piled wig her hair is stubble.
They are of a height and their bodies are pale but the backs of his hands are darker than hers.
Sophie puts on his rags.
“I am marrying a rich old man tomorrow,” says Sophie- “only not me but you.”
Then Sophie takes the pistol and the maid laces him into the whale-bone stays and puts the petticoat and dress on over his head.
She fixes the wig in place with pins.
She whitens his face and applies the patches.
“Goodbye myself,” says Sophie and kisses him on the lips.
Then she climbs through the window and down the rope.
Bold girl.
The maid snuffs the candles. The mirror whitens.
He waits for the bridegroom with jewels in his lap.
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We're back. And I can blog without fretting about the phone bill (we're on broadband here.)

I wrote this on the train. It's a poem (I suppose.)

EIGHTEENTH CENTURY THOUGHTS

I am having eighteenth century thoughts;
Urns and pyramids comfort me,
Hope is our anchor
(Or is it faith that is the anchor?)
And the Cross is our sure support.

The train goes north. At Wellingborough there are harvested fields behind a white picket fence and a man in tartan shorts (not an employee of the railway company) walks along the platform blessedly picking up litter.

Welcome to Northamptonshire
Rose of the Shires.

But no life is as lively as the life of London which I am leaving-
Its crowds unselected by race or religion-
And the stucco, ye gods and goddesses, the stucco!

Bloomsbury

Aug. 22nd, 2004 04:11 pm
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Talking about poems- O look, I've just written one. I don't know that I can explain it, but mainly it's a tribute to Virginia Woolf.

BLOOMSBURY

1
His wife’s thighs were badly scratched.
He said, “I don’t care that you sleep with Vita
But get her to take her earrings off.”

2
The whiteness of the terraces-
They march, they march- and the nestiness
Of the little gardens inside the squares.

Cameron girls with fierce, bold eyes
And limbs like pilasters and hair, hair,
Spread out, unwashed and smelling uncared for.
Who needs the grail when those girls are there?

Green apples in orchards and lights at sea-
Venus down low and the lamp above it,
The lighthouse lamp that brushes through bedrooms
And brushes the portraits of Cameron girls.

Vanessa, Virginia,

And O to be nothing
But light on pilasters. They march. They march.

Lorca

Aug. 6th, 2004 10:17 am
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The Spanish can't agree on whether they should dig up Lorca or not. Oddly enough, it's his family- his nephews and nieces- who say "no". I can't think what their motives are, beyond not wanting to rock the boat. The Guardian article from which I'm drawing most of this information calls them "conservative." Hmmm.

Lorca was murdered by a fascist death squad in 1936 and his body thrown into a pit alongside those of a one-legged teacher and a couple of anarchist bull-fighters. Even in death a touch of the surreal. Of course, unless they dig him up, we can't be sure the story is true.

The guys who killed Lorca called themselves la escuadra negra- the black squadron. How bloody infantile these fascists are! One of the killers later boasted that he'd shot Lorca in the ass "because he was a poof."

H.G. Wells wrote to the authorities in Granada (as president of PEN) to ask what had become of his "distinguished colleague." Wells and Lorca- what an odd and unlikely conjunction. Ah, the republic of letters!

A couple of years ago I wrote a sequence of poems about Granada to accompany a set of photos my sister had taken. It's called "La Alpujarra". There was talk of an exhibition, but it hasn't happened yet. In the process of researching the project I got turned on by Lorca.

He flits in and out of the sequence. Here's one of his appearances.

LORCA

They made a play of it
They made a ritual.
Invitations were issued to all of Spain.
The tiers were restless.
The green, green bones and the rusty shrouds,
Puppets in corduroy and leather,
The nightingales that fanned the air
Were restless

They drove him up in a black limousine,
Not to be buried.
He wore his pride like an overcoat,
He wore his love like a tilted fedora.
Minotaurs and majas applauded,
All were his creatures.
Cabbage roses of gored flesh,
This was the tribute.

They set him down at the cemetery gates
Not to be buried.
And if one asks where Lorca lies,
Show her the mist above the river,
Show her the road through the orchard dew,
Show her the crags of Andalucia.
They ruined him like a millionaire.
They scattered him to the crowd like silver.

The reference to "cemetery gates" is a nod to another version of the story which has him being executed (as over 2,000 people were) at Granada's municipal cemetery. I've let it stand- even though it's probably not accurate- because I don't think I can change it now without gutting the poem.
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I know the back of this hand too well.
I want to be fifteen again-
The world like a jar of marmalade,
And me with a silver spoon in my mitt.
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It's been a while since I posted a poem. This one actually got itself published once- in that very wonderful magazine Iota- for which I write reviews. http://www.raggedraven.co.uk/iota.htm

AFTER TITIAN

The Graces bring the quiver and bow
While Venus binds her small son’s eyes
And looks away with a serious face
As if regretting the damage he’ll do

To cities of men where laws will be broken,
Where smooth, white walls will crawl with graffiti.

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